DETROIT – Before passing Bobby Orr for the fastest start by a defenceman in the modern history of the NHL, Morgan Rielly was asked how many more mornings he expected to wake up co-leading the league’s scoring race with teammate Auston Matthews.
Then he bought himself at least one more.
Rielly piled another goal and assist onto his heap of points inside a bipartisan Little Caesars Arena on Thursday, keeping pace with Matthews and helping the Toronto Maple Leafs to a 5-3 victory over the Detroit Red Wings.
That put the 24-year-old into the company of Orr with 12 points in five games to open the season – a feat trumpeted by the NHL and recognized by teammate Mitch Marner, who referred to him as “Mo Orr” inside the winning dressing room.
Except Rielly was unwilling to discuss what should have been a flattering piece of trivia. No defenceman has had a more prolific start to the season than him since Harry Cameron of the Toronto Arenas in 1917-18. The best Orr managed during one of the greatest careers in NHL history was 11 points in 1973.
“Yeah, I’m not going to probably talk about it,” said Rielly. “Really, it’s not that important. I think it’s important that we move on. There’s lot of things going on with this team to be proud of when it comes to wins or when it comes to new players playing really well. The penalty kill was really good and there’s lots of things to talk about and I’m not really going to address personal stuff.”
There would seem to be a hint of superstition built into that response. Earlier in the day, he compared his offensive explosion to a hitter getting on a hot streak in baseball – pointing out that he’d been lucky to pick up an assist on an empty-net goal, among other favourable bounces.
“You kind of take it with a grain of salt a little bit,” said Rielly. “You want to keep rolling, you want to play well, but I don’t think it’s all that sustainable. We’ll see.”
No, but it accurately depicts what a circus team the Leafs have looked like in these opening days of 2018-19. They’ve piled up 25 goals while facing five teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last spring – a streak that will end Saturday when they play the defending Stanley Cup champions in Washington.
Rielly has enjoyed some good fortune in getting to man the point on the Galacticos power-play unit, earning assists on six of the seven goals Toronto has scored with a man advantage so far. That included one off the stick of Matthews here in Detroit, which came on a precision shot just above Jimmy Howard’s right pad and below his arm.
Matthews has made his own strong impression to start the campaign. He’s already sitting at nine goals after scoring in all five games – matching his longest stretch as a NHL player – and pulled back into a tie with Rielly at 12 points when he scored his second of the night midway through the third period.
“His stats alone speak for themselves,” said veteran Red Wings defenceman Niklas Kronwall. “The stuff that he can do, the goals that he scores, how he’s able to shoot the puck, it’s not every year that someone comes around where you go ‘Wow, this is pretty special.’ You see [Connor] McDavid and Matthews is the same way.
“I think he’s a pretty unique player, to be honest with you, because he’s so fast as well. And that release. It’s not often you see someone have all those tools combined.”
The Leafs have several weapons at their disposal. John Tavares picked up four assists against the Red Wings and sits at 10 points – tied with his linemate Marner, who had a goal and an assist on Thursday.
Somewhat incredibly, Toronto has put up these numbers while Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau remain without a goal and William Nylander sits back in Sweden waiting out a contract dispute. There’s more in them to give.
Rielly’s massive start comes off a strong finish to last season, when he had a career-best 52 points. Now in his sixth year in the league, Rielly is someone Mike Babcock believes has the tools to become a bonafide No. 1 fixture on the blue-line.
“It’s a hard league for a D-man,” said Babcock. “We’ve got good offensive players up front and Morgan can pass and really skate. … Mo has confidence, no one gives it to you, you’ve got to earn it. I think he earned a lot last year and he’s really come on again this year. He feels like every night he goes out there he can do something.”
He fits in well on this roster.
“I think to Toronto there’s so much more than just Matthews,” said Kronwall. “Marner is one amazing player. They’ve got Tavares, they’ve got some other guys that are just doing it right. They’ve got a good thing going.”
Rielly has lived through the depths of a 30th-place finish and one of the late-season collapses under Randy Carlyle. He’s seen almost a complete overhaul of the front office, coaching staff and roster, and now sees nothing but promise for this organization.
And he’s thanking his lucky stars that he’s sharing in it.
“For a group to be going through this stuff with Auston playing the way he is and Johnny and Mitch playing together the way they are, I think it’s just really exciting,” said Rielly. “It’s just fun to be a part of.”